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Millennials vs. Gen Z: how their customer service expectations compare

Millennials and zoomers will soon become the two largest consumer groups in the country. Companies hoping to earn their brand loyalty should study their differing customer service expectations and preferences.

By Patrick Grieve

Last updated April 22, 2021

In 2019, millennials officially passed baby boomers as America’s largest adult generation. The millennial population is expected to grow even larger over the next 10 years, as young immigrants continue to swell its ranks.

The next decade will also mark the maturity of Generation Z, which already outnumbers Generation X by 2 million members. By 2030, millennials and zoomers will be the two largest adult consumer groups in the country.

As their influence continues to grow, it only makes sense for companies to closely study these two age cohorts. That’s one reason why the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2021 segmented survey respondents by generation. We found that although both groups are similar in many ways, millennials and Gen Zers have some different attitudes towards customer service, brand loyalty and support channels.

Generation Z vs. millennials: what are the main differences?

Despite the way it’s often used, ‘millennial’ is not a catch-all term or epithet for any avocado-toast-loving young person. In fact, many millennials aren’t even that young anymore – the oldest members of the generation are turning 40 in 2021.

According to Statista, members of the millennial generation were born between 1981 and 1996, making them between 25 and 40 years old today. Generation Z (also known as zoomers) encompasses those born between 1997 and 2012. Its oldest members are 24 years old, while its youngest are just 9 years old – and won’t reach adulthood until the year 2030.

Millennials and zoomers are alike in many ways, differing only slightly in some respects. For example, both age groups are more tech-savvy than their parents. But Gen Z members are the true digital natives, having grown up with smartphones in their hands.

Both generations also tend to reflect the different periods in which they were brought up. As a 2015 article in The New York Times put it: “Millennials, after all, were raised during the boom times and relative peace of the 1990s, only to see their sunny world dashed by the September 11 attacks and two economic crashes, in 2000 and 2008. Theirs is a story of innocence lost. Generation Z, by contrast, has had its eyes open from the beginning, coming along in the aftermath of those cataclysms in the era of the war on terror and the Great Recession.”

Since then, Gen Z has been further moulded by the political volatility of the last few years. Of course, they’ve also weathered a global pandemic, which has disrupted many zoomers’ educational experiences and early career ambitions.

It remains to be seen whether the COVID-19 recession will permanently hinder the earnings potential of zoomers, as the Great Recession – following the global crash of 2008 – did to older millennials. But, our report did find that the pandemic has already influenced the customer service expectations of both groups.

The evolving customer service perceptions of millennials vs. Gen Z

At the beginning of COVID-19, many support teams were stretched to their breaking point as customers complained about delayed packages and cancelled flights. Those experiences profoundly impacted millennials and zoomers, who have developed slightly divergent views on negative customer service interactions. Here’s how…

The pandemic has altered younger customers’ CX expectations

It seems that the younger you are, the more COVID-19 has influenced your customer service expectations. In our Customer Experience Trends Report, we asked customers how their expectations for customer service interactions have changed since the start of the pandemic. Zoomers between the ages of 18 and 24 were the most affected:

  • 21% had higher expectations

  • 21% had lower expectations

  • 58% reported no change

The responses were similar among millennials between the ages of 25 and 40:

  • 20% had higher expectations

  • 18% had lower expectations

  • 62% reported no change

By contrast, the pandemic had very little impact on the customer service expectations of customers ages 55 or older:

  • 11% had higher expectations

  • 11% had lower expectations

  • 78% reported no change

The same trend was evident when customers were asked whether the pandemic made them more or less patient during customer service interactions. Gen Z experienced the biggest shifts, with 29% of zoomers becoming more patient and 18% becoming less patient. Similarly in customer service for millennials, 24% said they had more patience, while 18% said they had less.

But among the 55 or older crowd, only 19% were more patient and 10% were less patient, with the vast majority (71%) unchanged by the experience.

Additionally, 53% of millennials and 47% of zoomers said they cared more about the quality of a company’s customer service in 2021 than they did the previous year.

Clearly, the pandemic has had a more profound impact on the younger generations in regards to customer service. While many millennials and zoomers have developed more patience (which could be a blessing for busy support agents), they’ve also come to expect more from businesses, setting a higher bar for customer service teams. Meeting those expectations will be critical for companies hoping to inspire more brand loyalty in younger customers.

Millennials are more sensitive to negative experiences than Zoomers

Bad customer service can be a killer for any business. Negative reviews spread much faster than positive ones, meaning that merely a few horror stories can scare off many potential customers. But different age groups have different levels of tolerance for bad support experiences.

In our survey, when it comes to customer service for millennials, 53% said they’d likely switch to a company’s competitor after just one poor experience, while 23% said they wouldn’t. Yet Gen Z is almost evenly split on the issue – 34% said they’d switch, while 32% said they wouldn’t. That makes them more tolerant of bad CX than any other age group we surveyed.

When asked about changing to a competitor after multiple negative experiences, 64% of zoomers said they’d switch and 16% said they wouldn’t. Once again, that sets them apart as the most tolerant age group.

53% of millennials would switch to a company’s competitor after just one negative customer service experience, compared to 23% of zoomers.

Do Gen Z customers just have thicker skin when it comes to dealing with bad customer service reps? Not necessarily. Nearly half of all zoomers identified “unfriendly support agent” as one of the most frustrating aspects of a poor experience – more than any other age group. Clearly, Gen Z still wants to talk to helpful empathetic agents; they’re just less likely to leave a brand if they don’t get their way.

Perhaps zoomers’ higher tolerance for bad CX can be explained by their comparative lack of wealth. Gen Z includes teenagers and young adults, many of whom are likely making purchasing decisions based on cost rather than CX. As they grow older and more economically secure, zoomers may eventually find they can afford to be as picky as millennials.

The preferred customer support channels of Gen Z vs. millennials

The biggest generational divides concern preferred customer support channels. While older consumers tend to favour traditional channels such as phone and email, younger buyers are increasingly open to newer digital alternatives.

Gen Z vs. millennials

Gen Z demands self-service options

Younger consumers are used to doing their own research. Perhaps because they grew up during the Great Recession, the digital natives of Generation Z are especially careful to learn about products before they commit to a purchase. Roughly three out of four zoomers say they take their time comparing prices, reading reviews and checking out different brands before they buy.

So, it’s no surprise that Gen Z customers also value the ability to solve issues on their own. In our survey, 30% of zoomers identified “not being able to find the information I need online” as one of the most frustrating aspects of bad customer service. That’s a larger percentage than any other age group; including millennials (25%), Gen Xers (23%) and customers over the age of 55 (18%).

Gen Z customers value the ability to solve issues on their own.

During the pandemic, zoomers have embraced self-service options more enthusiastically than any other age cohort. Nearly 30% of Gen Z customers say they’ve increased their usage of help centres, knowledge bases and FAQ pages as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Compare that to 26% of millennials, 20% of Gen Xers and just 12% of boomers.

Clearly, younger customers have high expectations for self-service support. Companies catering to these consumers should create robust knowledge bases that empower customers to help themselves.

Zoomers and millennials are more comfortable interacting with chatbots

Self-service goes hand-in-hand with artificial intelligence. After all, a chatbot is basically an interactive FAQ page that can directly respond to questions by suggesting relevant content. Although millennials aren’t as keen as zoomers to use self-service tools, they still embrace AI.

60% of zoomers and millennials agreed that “automation/bots are helpful for simple issues”, while only 15% disagreed. Meanwhile, 50% of boomers agreed with the statement, while 18% disagreed.

There was an even wider generational split regarding the statement: “when in a hurry, I would prefer to interact with a chatbot rather than a human agent”. About 40% of Gen Z and millennial customers agreed with the statement, while 30% disagreed. About 40% of Gen Z and millennial customers agreed with the statement, while 30% disagreed.

Older consumers, however, took the opposite position. Merely 28% of Gen Xers and 20% of boomers agreed that they’d rather talk to a bot than a human when in a hurry, while 40% and 50% disagreed.

60% of zoomers and millennials agreed that “automation/bots are helpful for simple issues.”

Younger customers have stepped up their AI usage over the past year, too. 20% of zoomers and 18% of millennials say that the COVID-19 crisis has led them to use bots more often. By contrast, just 6% of older customers say they’ve used bots more often during the pandemic and 22% say they’ve used them less.

One big reason for the generational divide? Older customers usually don’t realise they’re interacting with a bot and sometimes feel tricked if they find out. We asked customers, “As far as you know, have you interacted with an automated support bot in the past year?”. Over half of zoomers and millennials answered "yes", while only 29% of consumers ages 55 and up said they had (and 15% answered “I don’t know”).

Companies should avoid frustration by being upfront about their use of AI. A good chatbot will identify itself as a bot and give customers the ability to opt out and speak to a human agent instead.

Younger generations are leading the adoption of digital channels

Help centres and chatbots aren’t the only digital support options that younger customers are embracing. The pandemic pushed shopping online, where millennials and zoomers feel right at home.

Over 40% of boomers listed physical in-store conversations as one of their preferred communication methods for resolving an issue. But less than a quarter of Gen Z and millennial consumers feel the same way. Additionally, 40% of zoomers and millennials have interacted with companies online more frequently due to COVID-19, compared to just 25% of boomers.

As a result, younger shoppers are being exposed to more digital customer support channels than their older counterparts.

  • 19% of zoomers and 20% of millennials have used community forums more during the pandemic, compared to 5% of consumers ages 55 or older.
  • 28% of Gen Z and 29% of millennials started using in-app messaging more, compared to 12% of the 55+ crowd.
  • Over a third of all zoomers and millennials started using web chat more, compared to 15% of boomers.

Younger customers are more comfortable contacting support via the same channels they use to talk to friends and family. About a quarter of Gen Z and millennial consumers said they started contacting customer service via SMS and text messaging during the pandemic, compared to only 14% of consumers ages 55 and up. Additionally, 36% of zoomers and millennials increased their use of social messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, compared to 19% of older customers.

Younger customers are more comfortable contacting support via the same channels they use to talk to friends and family.

There’s a big divide when it comes to social media, too – 31% of zoomers and 29% of millennials have been contacting companies by posting on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Amongst those ages 55 or older, the share is just 10%.

Contacting customer service via video chat has also become increasingly popular among younger generations (24% of zoomers and 28% of millennials) than older ones (12%) during the pandemic.

Though younger generations are embracing newer channels, they haven’t fully outgrown the phone: 42% of zoomers said they’ve called customer service more often as a result of COVID-19 – the largest portion of any age group.

Satisfy customers of all ages with an omnichannel support experience

Newer support channels may be useful add-ons in customer service for millennials and Gen Z customers, but they haven’t supplanted more traditional communication methods. Phone and email are still the two most commonly preferred channels among all age groups. Self-service options and chatbots aren’t replacements for human support agents, but rather complementary options.

If your company offers truly omnichannel customer service, you won’t have to choose between catering to millennials vs. Gen Zers vs. Gen Xers vs. boomers. Consumers will be able to interact with your brand the way they prefer, whether that’s over a landline or a tweet. See how easy it can be to offer every channel to support your customers.

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